The problem
with alcohol

As parents, there are many things that keep us awake at night, not least worrying about our children. We all want to do the best for them, but sometimes it’s hard to know what that is.

Most of us think we’re experts on alcohol because many of us drink. We know when and how we first started to drink. And we know we survived the experience, although we might wish we could cut down.

The problem is we now know more about how harmful alcohol can be. It’s linked to 200 different diseases and injuries including heart disease, liver disease and seven types of cancer 1. It’s harmful for adults – but the risks are even greater for under 18s whose minds and bodies are still developing.

For that reason, the medical advice is clear; it is healthiest and best for children to drink nothing before they are 18. And it is especially important they don’t consume alcohol under the age of 15 2.

Young girl upset on bed

Alcohol can cause seven different types of cancer

How children are affected.

We all know teenagers can be moody, take risks, and even seem to enjoy breaking the rules. This is usually put down to their hormones, but the truth is that much of that behaviour is because their brains continue to develop and change until they are into their mid-20s. What does this have to do with drinking alcohol? Well we now know that drinking alcohol before our children reach adulthood can change or delay the development of the logical, thoughtful part of the brain 3.

Alcohol can affect your child’s mental health. At a time when mental illness in childhood is increasingly in the news, it is another reason why it’s a good idea for your children to avoid alcohol before the age of 18. Drinking can affect how well your child does at school. It is also linked to stress, depression and self-harming behaviour 4.

Alcohol can lead to other risky, impulsive behaviour. There is no such thing as a risk-free drink, for you or your child. But underage drinking can lead to other problems. Young people who drink regularly are four times more likely to smoke and three times more likely to take other, illegal drugs. They are more likely to get hurt due to an accident or as a result of violence and are more likely to engage in early and unprotected sex 5.

By giving our children small amounts of alcohol in the home we might think we are doing the right thing. The fact is that children who drink in the home are also more likely to drink outside the home 6. Young people who drink before they are 15 are also four times more likely to be dependent on alcohol later in life 7.

Alcohol can affect all the different systems in the body and the fact that children’s organs are still developing can make them particularly vulnerable. We know that drinking alcohol can affect their liver, bones, hormones and even their growth 8.

Children are smaller, which means alcohol’s effects work more quickly on them in the short-term. Alcohol poisoning can result in young people being admitted to hospital or worse. Each year over 300 under 18s in the North East are admitted to hospital because of alcohol and many more end up being discharged from Emergency Departments without being admitted. Nationally around 4,000 under 18s are admitted 9.

Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death amongst 15-49 year olds in the UK 10.

Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death amongst 15-49 year olds in the UK

What about my drinking?

We all want to be good role models. Research tells us that children often notice what we as adults drink and can find adults getting drunk embarrassing or scary, rather than funny 11.

Alcohol misuse can also run in families 12. If you or a close relative drinks too much your child may also be at increased risk from alcohol. It’s worth thinking about your own drinking in the house and around your children.

If you are concerned about your drinking see your GP, alternatively call Drink Line on 0300 123 1110.

Family watching TV on sofa

Take some time out to talk.

A helpful guide for parents

As parents you have more influence than you think. You can help your children to avoid alcohol harms by:

  • learning about alcohol risks for young people,
  • understanding the myths,
  • talking to your children about alcohol,
  • agreeing rules,
  • being good role models.

Advice from England’s Chief Medical Officer

The advice from England’s Chief Medical Officer is that ‘Children and their parents and carers are advised that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, if children drink alcohol it should not be until at least the age of 15 years’.

Find out more about the 5 key recommendations in our article here.

  1. World Health Organization (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018
  2. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  3. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people. Newbury-Birch et al (2009) Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People. A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Jane Marshall (2014) Adolescent Alcohol Use: Risks and Consequences Alcohol and Alcoholism Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 160–164.
  4. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people. Newbury-Birch et al (2009) Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People. A Systematic Review of Published Reviews.
  5. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people. NHS Digital (2016). Smoking, drinking and drugs use among young people.
  6. Mattick et al (2018) Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol related harms, and alcohol use disorder; a prospective cohort study. Lancet Public Health, 3 e64-71.
  7. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people. E. Jane Marshall (2014) Adolescent Alcohol Use: Risks and Consequences Alcohol and Alcoholism Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 160–164.
  8. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  9. PHE (2018) Local Alcohol Profiles for England.
  10. PHE (2016) The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies An evidence review.
  11. Institute for Alcohol Studies (2017) ‘Like sugar for adults’ – the effect of non-dependent parental drinking on children and families.
  12. PHE (2016) The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies An evidence review. Jane Marshall (2014) Adolescent Alcohol Use: Risks and Consequences Alcohol and Alcoholism Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 160–164.